Monday, July 27, 2009

Sleepers Awake

The day I visited Degage Ministries to pitch my idea for a theatre class, most everybody was sleeping.

The grill had just closed and the next program hadn't yet started; some folks were milling about on the second floor doing laundry and chores or checking mail, but here, on the main floor, it seemed that most people were slumped over tables snoozing. A lot of men, it seemed, which would make sense given that Degage provides overnight shelter for women only.

Today, though, the place was bustling. People were friendly and talkative, a card game was in full swing in the corner, and only a few people were taking naps. When the reminder came over the microphone that "Theatre Games" would be starting in a few minutes, that's when I heard it:

"Oh no."

I've had my share of bad theatre classes, so I know that "oh no" feeling. There was the semester of Acting 2 that was spent solely in the text of "Green Eggs and Ham"; I don't think I need to go on. And although in college I was always drawn to the weird stuff--Theatre of the Absurd, Poor Theatre--I still managed to spend the next 15 years doing regular stuff instead: stage managing at professional venues, teaching in a middle school, and the like. These types of theatre are quite valid and wonderful in their own right, but something about the usual performance stuff didn't sit right with me, and I nearly gave up the field entirely when I had kids.

And then, about 3 years ago, I read Games for Actors and Non-Actors, a book I had picked up maybe 10 years before. And the angels started to sing.

Theatre of the Oppressed takes theatre out of the hands of professionals and gives it to the people. In this "rehearsal for reality," people can begin to figure out what kind of change they need in their lives and cultures and how to bring that about. TO has been used all over the world for nearly 40 years with no sign of stopping, even though the remarkable man who started it all, Augusto Boal, died this past May. I'm fortunate to have studied with him twice, and with his son, Julian, who has taken over for his father.

I'm quite evangelical about TO, so it will come up often in this blog. It does what it purports to do, and in a very non-intimidating way. Its lack of emphasis on performance--some of the branches of TO, that is--makes it perfect for work with marginalized populations. That's why, when I heard the "oh no" at Degage, I grabbed the microphone.

"I heard that," I said, joking with the heckler. "And I want you to know that I'm not an actor. I've always been a teacher or a director, so I'll only ask you to do things that I'm comfortable doing. But I'm hoping that, at the same time, we'll all be stretched a little as human beings."

And then I stood there. Sometimes even the best speeches don't do what you want them to do. I wanted everyone to rise to their feet, applaud, and join me in the center of the room.

But what happened next was just as good.

A woman slowly walked over near where I was standing and sat down. After another minute or two, a second woman sat next to her. I asked their names, they stood up, and we began.

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